The spinal column is composed of twenty-four bones called vertebrae, which provide support to the skeleton and protect the spinal cord. These vertebrae are stacked upon one another and separated by intervertebral discs that absorb shocks and allow for some degree of movement. The seven small vertebrae that begin at the base of the skull and form the neck are known as the cervical spine.
As the intervertebral discs age, they begin to dry out, weaken, and thin. They lose their ability to act as cushions, subjecting the joints to increased pressure. The cartilage that covers the joint surfaces of the vertebrae starts to wear away, and in severe cases, it can disappear entirely, leading to localized pain and gradually worsening movement limitations. In such cases, cervical arthrosis, or neck arthrosis, can be diagnosed.
Causes of Cervical Arthrosis
Age is one of the primary factors contributing to cervical arthrosis, because the intervertebral discs naturally dehydrate over time. Incorrect posture and excessive or repetitive strain on the neck area also play significant roles. Working long hours seated at a desk, standing for extended periods, or repeatedly lifting weights can lead to cervical arthrosis,, even in younger individuals. Excess weight, or overweight, can negatively impact the joints by subjecting them to more pressure than they should bear.
Trauma, both sports-related and non-sports-related, can also be a cause. Classic examples include whiplash injuries sustained during car accidents. Additionally, cervical arthrosis, can arise due to spinal deviations such as scoliosis or hyperkyphosis, as well as other conditions like osteoporosis or rheumatoid arthritis.
Symptoms of Cervical Arthrosis
Characteristic symptoms of cervical arthrosis, include pain felt in the back of the head and along the neck, radiating to the shoulders and arms, particularly during physical activity (less so during rest). In severe cases, tingling sensations and minor shocks can be felt in the fingers, eventually leading to loss of sensitivity and muscle strength. Another classic symptom, common when the arthritic condition involves other joints, is a sensation of stiffness—especially noticeable in the morning upon waking—and difficulty performing simple movements, such as turning or tilting the head.
An important indicator not to be overlooked is the perception of joint sounds resembling a "snap" when rotating the neck or lowering the head. This sound is caused by the formation of osteophytes within the cartilage. Osteophytes are bony outgrowths that the body produces to compensate for the lost cartilage and provide continued vertebral support. These sounds are often associated with a sensation of internal friction, as if there were "sand" between the vertebrae. Other symptoms that may occur include headaches, nausea, and dizziness during position changes.
Treatment of Cervical Arthrosis
If you experience typical cervical arthrosis, symptoms and pain interferes with daily life, it's advisable not to delay seeking an orthopaedic examination. During this visit, the specialist will assess your situation, prescribe any necessary further tests (usually X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging), and recommend appropriate treatments. Surgical intervention is rarely necessary and only in extreme cases, such as severe nerve or spinal cord compression.
During painful episodes, painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and occasionally muscle relaxants can be useful. During these phases, the neck muscles should be rested, potentially with the use of a soft cervical collar, and applying heat to reduce tension. In between painful episodes, a competent physiotherapist can be highly beneficial. They can provide manual therapy and rehabilitative treatments like tecar therapy, laser therapy, cryotherapy, and ultrasound.
Preventing Cervical Arthrosis
Preventively, it's useful to improve habits that contribute to the development or worsening of cervical osteoarthritis whenever possible. Adopting correct posture to avoid overtaxing the cervical area, especially during prolonged periods of standing or sitting, is essential. In this regard, consulting a specialist to learn and practice postural rehabilitation exercises can be helpful.
Regular exercise, both in terms of general movement—like swimming or walking—and specific neck-focused gymnastics and stretching exercises performed multiple times a day, can be beneficial. These exercises can help strengthen and lengthen weakened or tense muscles. Examples include forward and backward movements, left and right rotations, and slow side-to-side rotations.
As mentioned earlier, excess weight can negatively affect joint health. Nutrition plays a significant role here. Losing some excess weight compared to the ideal weight can reduce stress on the joints. Additionally, eliminating "joint-damaging" foods can help decrease the inflammatory process leading to cartilage erosion.
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